They asked where we wanted Jacob’s remains sent. Then they asked what we’d arranged for interment. The Captain shared that my son, Staff Sergeant Keylor, was well liked in the unit and the Chaplain told us the local Army base had a tranquil cemetery near the chapel. His mother, Rebecca, wanted him brought back home to the western Wrangell Mountains, but when I learned about the IED that eviscerated his body, I said, “Cremate him. Let the fire finish what the enemy started.”
Jacob, twenty-four, died in the fall, when the light grows shorter by handfuls of minutes, and termination dust creeps down the mountains until everything becomes cloaked in whiteness. Before the river froze, we sprinkled our son’s ashes and watched as they mixed with the silt and disappeared downstream.
In Alaska, our two seasons are as obvious as day and night, and I learned long ago not to favor either, but rather to appreciate each for the change it brings. And although I’ve felt tired these past few years, I continue to bounce my dip net along the Copper River’s bottom as I struggle with the T-grip, fighting it upright to keep the net open against the swift current. Just one footstep from shore and the pull is powerful enough to sweep a human body downriver over the smooth rounded rocks, the water glacial, tawny, shock-cold.
I keep my knees bent and brace my weight on thighs grown shakier with age, my footing firm. Filleted salmon spines and fish heads drift by me towards the Gulf of Alaska, right here where I taught Jacob to fish. Where he watched me maneuver the eighteen-foot pole, the net’s four-foot wide opening like a ghost moving through the water.
I wait for sockeye, reds making their slow up-river journey.
Salmon fishing is about endurance and repetition, about technique: face up stream, then fling the net into the current, bracing and pulling to keep the mouth open, upright. Stay patient. When the net finishes its sweeping arc, nearing the downriver bank, rotate the handle and haul it back, hand over hand over hand. If empty, repeat.
Carrying Jacob on my shoulders, I used to walk the boundary of our homestead, all eighty acres.
“Western hemlock and white spruce,” I’d say, and hold his face close to the spiny boughs. “Willow, alder,” back along our easement, along the road and up the driveway.
I explained how no one owned this land, that we were stewards, custodians, beneficiaries of its tidings and bounties.
I remember how Rebecca watched through the kitchen window as I guided Jacob’s hand up and down the paper-like bark of white birch. He was born when the kettle ponds thawed enough for the geese and swans to return from their southern migration.
In the upper meadow I laid him on the earth, and together we watched the sky for both eagle and swallow. Showed him a colony of fireweed still flushed rouge in the early summer and explained how, by July’s end, it would be blushed and fuscia, and then, in full bloom, magenta. Showed him alpine forget-me-not, our state flower, and held the thin blue pedals before his eyes, which matched the sky.
When he turned seven I took him on his first trapline. Showed him how to set a snare for snowshoe hare, atop shrubby riverbanks and among saplings of bog birch and buffaloberry.
“Help me pull this back, ” he said, our fists wrapped around the stiffest gray willow limb. I taught him to hang the snares high, ensuring the hare dies quickly and therefore tastes better. We trapped in winter, after freeze-up but before break-up, sometimes when it was twenty below zero, when small game is free of disease.
When he turned twelve, old enough to withstand the recoil of my .30/30, he shot his first moose, and together we hauled the loads, hundreds of pounds of meat back to hang in camp. That night, exhausted, we shared the animal’s heart, and glowing in the campfire, Jacob’s grin deepened when I passed my flask for a pinch.
“Just a little,” I told him. “Burns the throat but warms the soul.”
He coughed and passed the Wild Turkey back.
“That’s enough, Dad,” he said. “Whoa.”
He was tall, strong-shouldered like I used to be.
If he were here today I’d say, “I’ll give it a couple more drifts. Then it’s your turn.” I can almost see him nod, always ready to out fish me.
In fact, I see him all the time, here along the river and walking the hills beyond our homestead or hitching along the highway. In my peripheral, his shadow moves through the forest and his face flashes upon all the men I see wandering this state.
My knuckles ache from gripping the net’s handle, palms stained from the flaking aluminum.
All around, the Wrangell Mountains watch over the Copper River, and mature spruce climb the broad looming slopes like a miner’s scraggly beard. Hills above the tree line become mountains, saw-tooth ridgelines, finger-like spires pointing towards space. Cliffs periodically canyon, walling in the river, but we always fish a sandy delta formed by Granite Creek, pouring crystalline into the Copper. A place where my family spent summers and where traditional fish camps were a common sight along Alaska’s waterways. Now they’re ramshackle bivouacs, blue tarps and duct tape. Plus tan and orange Winnebago’s parked beside mud-stained Coleman tents. Clouds of mosquitoes and coastal drizzle make it appear more like refugee camps. Except, of course, for the glee of those inhabitants with coolers full of pale, pinkish orange fish.
Some families drove to the river on four wheelers and dune-buggy-looking off-road vehicles. Others dragged coolers and fishing gear on wagons and wheelbarrows, debris from past seasons cast into shrubs and embedded at the high-water mark. A 1960’s Volkswagen Bus abandoned in a ditch, a bumper sticker that read Where The Hell Is Chitina?.
Chitina, where the first Alaskans have fished for thousands of years. Dozens of them are here today, gathering meat for the long winter. It’s where Rebecca and I showed Jacob how to haul reds and kings. Where we held hands and said a prayer, thanking the fish for migrating from the sea and bringing us sustenance. Where we showed him how to save the roe from the females, and how to filet down the spine, slicing away the vertebrae to get the most meat. Where we laughed as he tried to say anadromous.
“Any-drain,” he’d mumble. “Mouse-lee.”
He learned quickly and did well in school but the wilderness was another education and I pushed farther and harder into the backcountry. More than just father and son we became partners. Eventually, he ran the traplines, ferried multiple loads of moose meat alone, and wasn’t afraid of six-hundred-pound grizzlies that lurked behind curtains of green alder and quaking aspen. I offered to help him start his own homestead, but I knew the same free spirit that brought me north would take him in another direction. In the spring of his eighteenth year, shortly before graduating high school, he joined the Army and volunteered to be a paratrooper.
With each summer’s run, I’m allowed thirty reds to feed my family. When Jacob deployed several seasons ago, Rebecca kippered the fillets and made jerky. We split open the salmon and salted and hung them to dry on birch boughs; a tired, smoldering fire smoked beneath. After the oil dripped from the meat, she sliced the fillets into strips, wrapped them in newsprint and wax paper, bundled them in a box and mailed them in care packages to Jacob, overseas, fighting in Iraq.
We imagined in the heat of that Middle Eastern desert, the taste of home would bring him comfort. We tried to imagine him sitting in his armored vehicle, wrapped in Kevlar, savoring each salmon strip. And we always sent extra, knowing our son would share.
There are five species of salmon in Alaska. When my son was a boy he knew them all, taught to him by his elementary school teacher. Whereas I learned by trial and error, by experience, he sang his jingle at the river’s edge:
“Chum is for your thumb,” he’d say, and he’d wiggle each digit like the tail of a salmon struggling against the current.
“Sockeye is your index, poking someone’s eye, king your middle, the highest knuckle and longest finger. Silver’s your ring, like a sterling wedding band, pink your pinkie. Easy as that!”
Salmon smolt wander out to sea for four or five years, then journey home to die. It’s their endless cycle. We steal that death from them for another death, the promise that they’ll nourish and sustain us, as we scoop them from the river. I explained this all to Jacob, and that salmon are a keystone species, one which supports this land in ways we can’t even fathom.
The last time we saw him, before shipping out for a second tour to Iraq, this time headed for the Babylon Province, he was skittish, a little restless, spending his free days chopping and stacking firewood, digging a new cellar out back in the permafrost. He planned to hunt dall sheep high in the mountains on his next R&R.
It’s strange to think of him alive and then dead, his suffering a mystery. I’ve never been to war, but I wonder how watching a man die would at least bear some closure? His sacrifice feels like more of a disappearance. He always talked to Rebecca like he’d be right back. Like the months of deployment would go by in a flash. I think for her it’s as if he walked out into the woods and never came home.
And these days I’m so exhausted. Even when I wake I feel consumed, cored out, empty with a void that cannot be filled with fish, or Alaska, like now everything is just a lesser version of what I’ve already suffered.
“Fish are running pretty good today,” the man beside me says.
He’s dark-skinned, native, and this is what he wears: neoprene chest waders and a rubberized nylon jacket, the hood of his black pullover exposed, polarized sunglasses, a ball cap bearing an unreadable logo, and leather gloves. A lower lip full of chewing tobacco. It’s after midnight and he needs to stay awake in case the run picks up.
“Yeah,” I tell him, and glance over at his catch of seven. My reds are strung on a line in an eddy. No crowd, so no shoulder-to-shoulder taking turns rotating off the shore, like paddling a tandem kayak, timing strokes with your net and your neighbor’s, poles clanking. This time of year it always rains in south central Alaska and the clouds slowly gather, obscuring the mountains.
All right, Jacob’s turn, I imagine, and pull in the net. A woman with the fisherman, maybe his wife, watches me then looks back at the river as if she can see beneath the silty current.
“Where’d he go?” I ask, then realize I’ve spoken aloud.
“Who?” the fisherman says.
“Oh, my son, it’s his turn. Must have gone back to the truck for something.”
The fisherman nods and throws in for another sweep; the woman’s watching me again. She’s wearing hip waders, her yellow rain slick zipped to her chin, hood pulled tight over her head.
I used to know a lot more people who’d stop and chat. They’d ask how my son was doing. Or how Rebecca was doing and why she wasn’t fishing with me anymore. Most understood when I explained she had plenty of other chores back at the homestead—canning and gardening and such.
My net back in the river I feel that slight tug. Know there’s something there, that sixth sense of fishing. I jerk the handle and slide my fists along the shaft.
“Fish in net,” I shout. “Fish,” and I drag it onto the shore.
“A triple . . . Jacob, a triple!”
Three-sockeye flop, one on top of the other, and I shout again, “A triple, Jacob.”
I take several small backward steps, dragging the net over the rocks, keeping its mouth shoulder high. I kneel down, grab my hickory club and usher two swift blows to the head of each fish, like knuckles against a hollow tree. Each tail makes a tight jerk then stiffens, slightly curved. I grab pliers from my fishing vest and snip the inside of the gills. Crimson blood spills over the scales, and I shear away both tail fin tips. Then one by one I dip the salmon into the river and wash away the gore. I haven’t had a triple in years.
Eight seems like a decent catch so I wade in and retrieve my others, the evening thick with rainy mist, and I figure it’ll feel good to clean them and relax in the camper; with Jacob’s help it would go fast.
I grab my line, straining slightly, and when I try to stand, I feel dizzy, light-headed, and remember when eight fish would’ve been only the start to a long day. Barely enough.
Summer midnights are dusky in Alaska, the river one continuous shadow my ankles disappear into. I search for Jacob, but it’s the dark-skinned man’s outstretched arm I see. I keep hold of my stringer, the line tight, and the chill of the frigid water rushing up to my calves. He reaches farther out and I stumble a little deeper, the rocks slippery beneath the clunky wader boots. I think how easy it would be to lie back and slip away, but instead I grasp his forearm and he guides me ashore. I drop my stringer, bow my head and almost catch my breath.
“You okay?” he asks.
“My son,” I say, and when I mention him by name, I can hear him saying, as if in our own language, “Anadromous.”
About the author:
served five years as a paratrooper and combat engineer in the Army, and saw combat in Iraq from 2006 to 2007. He is an MFA in Writing candidate in the low-residency program at Pacific University in Oregon, and lives with his wife and dog in Fairbanks, Alaska.